Kieran Darcy-Smith talks collapsing on the set of his second feature ‘The Duel’

21 December, 2016 by Harry Windsor

Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith moved to L.A. off the back of his first feature, 2012's 'Wish You Were Here', co-written by his wife, Felicity Price.


This year saw the release of his first film since, 'The Duel', a western starring Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrelson. He talks to IF about living in L.A., the film's development process and a fraught production in Mississippi.

You’ve been living in LA since Wish You Were Here, is that right?

We came over for Sundance for Wish You Were Here and the whole experience was a real trip for us. We had the opening night film and there was a massive party afterwards catered by some sort of celebrity chef who had been flown in. And all the top agents had flown up from L.A. specifically for that screening, and we were just being courted. At the time we were living out the back of Earlwood with two little kids and no money, and had been living on credit cards for four years while we wrote this script. Poor as church mice. And here we were in this incredible environment being offered the world. It’s very alluring. We left America after Sundance knowing that we were just going to pack up the house and come back. We spent about three months in Australia for the Wish You Were Here release tour and then came here. That was five years ago. 

Was it tough to get your bearings initially?

I love it here. I love the geography, the landscape, the architecture, I love everything about it. And it’s quite an exciting place to be if you’re an artist. It’s all around you all the time and you feed off it. The funny thing about L.A. is it’s a vast sprawling metropolis [but] we live here in Laurel Canyon, just up above the Sunset Strip, and this area is really very concentrated. Hollywood, Century City, Beverly Hills. It’s really ten minutes from our house to get to any of the main agencies or wherever you’re going to meet with producers. Studio City is really close as well. It’s more contained even than Sydney or Melbourne if you’re in the industry. It feels really intimate, not like you’d expect. I was cutting The Duel over in Burbank and I was riding my motorbike back home every night, and I could just take Mulholland all the way along back up Laurel Canyon Drive to get to our place. And I’d be the only one on the road. This beautiful windy legendary road with the San Fernando Valley stretched out beneath me. L.A. is amazing like that in that you can find real privacy. Where we are up here in the hills, it’s like living in a treehouse in the woods. Yet I can throw a rock and hit the Whisky A Go-Go.

How did you land on The Duel as your second feature? 

[At Sundance] I was already being shown a ton of scripts and had I just wanted to go out and be a director for hire and make a Final Destination 16 straightaway I could have done [it]. But I wanted to be careful and choose the right project. So it did take a while. A bit longer to get a movie up than expected. The Duel was the first one really that caught my attention in the first flurry of scripts that came through when we moved here. It was very rough initially. Even though it was a Black List winner. There was a hell of an idea buried within it and the themes were really rich. It had this biblical kind of sensibility; like this big fat kind of parable. We went through a long process developing the script with Matt Cook, the writer, and I did a lot of drafts on it myself. Matt wrote it off the back of two tours of duty in Iraq as a platoon leader in a hunt and kill squad. He’s this really gentle poet of a man and he joined the army to test his physical fitness as a 22-year old. On his very first day of boot camp two planes crashed into the world trade center. So he all of a sudden found himself at war and he wasn’t expecting it. He came out and had a lot of experience with death and war and killing and he wanted to express himself and he wrote this script and then it found its way to me. 

How did you raise the money?

It’s an independent film. Mandeville Films in LA were the ones who brought the script to me; they owned the rights to it. And then the finance came out of a company in Mississippi. Mandeville sort of handballed it to them and they in effect became the production company. The film had to be shot in Mississippi as a result, and that was really tricky. Really hard to find the locations to make it work. It was fraught with difficulties. A lot of money fell out; we lost seven days of our shooting schedule just a couple of days out from shooting so we had to cut 25 scenes out of the script. And we’d already trimmed every ounce of fat off it. I said, well we can’t make the movie, it doesn’t make any sense. And they said we’ve got to make the movie. So we had to go out and shoot that movie and make the story work. So it was very challenging. I ended up in emergency one night; just collapsed on set. It was that kind of a shoot. Super intense. But the crew and the cast were phenomenal; they were right behind me all the way. We did it for one another. We were getting the dailies in and they were great. We knew what we were getting [was good]. It was just that we’d lost so many scenes off the page that we were terrified about how we were going to make it work.

It must be hard watching it now, having those lost scenes in your head.

Everything we shot is on the screen, apart from one scene. I think it’s the best scene I’ve ever directed and it didn’t make the cut. It was taken out at the very last minute for length just because the distributors wanted it to come in at a certain length. It was devastating, and that sort of thing always happens. To lose this one scene just because it made the film three minutes longer to me was just ridiculous. 

Was the post period difficult?

Really hard. I was super anxious when we wrapped. Because it was a tricky movie on the page anyway. I like to think of it as a metaphysical western; it’s a mixture of a number of things. That Heart of Darkness journey upriver for this one man and his wife; an element of revenge but not really. Unfortunately they marketed it as a revenge thriller here and it’s not. Revenge really plays a minor role and it only really comes out in the end. The main character is driven by bigger things than revenge. If we had all the scenes that joined it all together it would make a lot more sense. I’m really proud of what we ended up with. I know what the movie could have been had we been able to shoot all those scenes we were scheduled to shoot. But I’m really proud of everything we did at the pointy end. The cast are phenomenal, it’s a well-made movie and it does work. 

Liam Hemsworth gets a bum rap but he’s solid in this.

You’re preaching to the choir. I really want people to see this movie for that reason. Liam is an extraordinary talent. He and his brother are often treated as some kind of a joke in the press, but they're both so good. I fucking hate so many elements of the mainstream tabloid media. But those guys are really good actors. I defy anyone to watch Liam Hemsworth in this movie and tell me he’s not doing it at 150 per cent. It’s a very hard thing to carry a movie and he does. He has the gaze, the strength, the texture, the softness as well. He’s a really deep-feeling, emotional actor and unfortunately he’s been cast in a couple of huge franchise things and people thing he’s just this good looking popcorn kid. There’s a [Mexican standoff] scene in The Duel that goes for eight minutes, and he commands that room for eight minutes. Not many actors can do that, honestly. Particularly when you’re up against people like Woody Harrelson. 

It seems as though he’s starting to do more interesting films, with this and The Dressmaker.

I just sent him an email about another one, hoping he might come onboard. It’s pretty gritty and if he takes it it’ll definitely showcase his acting. We’ll see what happens. 

What are you working on next?

There are a few things. I’ve just finished writing a script for one company but I’ve got two movies in development and at the very tail-end of development. They’re both fully financed, both out to cast as we speak. Both ready to go and both for huge companies. They’re both $30 million-ish. Not huge but decent budgets. They’re independent, not studio movies, and they’re totally different. It’s just a race as to which one casts first. I’ve been fully transparent with both companies about the other movie. You’ve kind of got to keep a couple of plates spinning because these things can fall over overnight.

Are they things you’ve developed or written yourself?

One I haven’t touched, haven’t changed a word of it. The other one I have been doing some work on over the last couple of weeks. But they were both presented as completed projects. I’ve never done that before. With The Duel I certainly had a big hand in the writing. But this is different and I like the idea of finding material and playing with other people’s ideas. One in particular puts me in a totally different I guess bracket in terms of perception. It’s a really big commercial Hollywood blockbuster. It’s not a big tentpole budget but in terms of genre it’s super marketable and it’ll go out wide. But it’s a really sophisticated idea. It’s elevated independent filmmaking. Both really good scripts, and they’re hard to find. I’ve been looking for good scripts for five years. By Way of Helena [The Duel’s original title] was one and then there’s these two. And I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scripts and turned them all down. 

What have you loved that you’ve seen this year?

We don’t get to see many. We’ve got two little kids and we’re always working. I saw Hell or High Water and loved it. I also saw Loving in Cannes with Joel [Edgerton]. It’s extraordinary. I love everything he [Jeff Nichols] has ever done. I have seen a cut of David Michôd’s new film and that is very exciting, but that’s about all I can say about that.

It’s interesting that they’re all films made outside the studio space.

There are a few things about Hollywood that have been disenchanting. Hollywood now is so corporate. It’s very different to what it was only fifteen years ago. The studio thing has really changed. I wrote one script for a studio and was attached to direct it. I wrote four drafts for them which they loved. But they can’t make it; it’s too heavy, too controversial. But when they first hired me they were still able to make a film like that. But it’s all changed quite radically in the last three years or so, and now they have to rely on their franchises and don’t take risks anymore. The studios just cannot afford it. And so everything is independent. You go to the Oscars and everything’s independent. It’s a shame because the studios have got the money, the infrastructure, the physical production [capability] to make really great movies, but they just cannot risk it. I find that really sad. 

The Duel is out now on DVD and digital.